Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Writing Process

I've been thinking a lot about my writing process during this course about Writing and the Teaching of Writing (gee--that's shocking).

I find it interesting that I kind of/sort of have a rough process, but it definitely varies from project to project.

For example, sometimes I start in my hand-written journal.  I have very clearly established in my head that it is ok to write anything there and it doesn't have to be good, which can be very freeing.

Sometimes I think I want to type my early draft or notes about something, but if I'm not sure what it will be or where it's headed, I don't feel like I have a good online space for that, and my journal is really the only place that will do.

But if I have an assignment of sorts, I've started using Google Docs.  I create a doc, and if there are criteria (as for an assignment) I copy those in first, and then go from there with brainstorming, then drafting, then revising, then deleting all the old notes, or copying the "good stuff" to yet another doc (but I don't do that very often).

This is a relatively new kind of thing, as I've only been using Google Docs for a few years now.  But I love the way it saves my history and saves my new stuff and keeps it all in one document.  It's like building a little treasure trove.

I colleague of mine and I both teach AP Language and Composition.  This is her first year teaching it and my second.  We are working together, doing units roughly simultaneously, and we've organically evolved an organizational system/planning process that I have become extremely fond of.  We settle on a rough topic, create a google doc that we generally call a Parking Lot, and we both start dumping ideas and resources into it.  As the unit evolves, the Parking Lot gets revised, and now we've got several of these shared docs filled with ideas and resources, and they will be incredibly helpful come next year.

My thinking/writing/planning processes have really evolved with the advent of Google Docs.  I'm fairly organized with my google docs files, and I save relatively little to my hard drive anymore.

This course has made me think about that process, and it has made me think about how I teach "writing process."  I know for me that I just have a sort of feeling about how I want to start something--whether on paper or on my computer--and I tend to just go with it.  Do my students have that "feeling"?  Are they still trying to find their way?  It seems an interesting conversation to have.

For a study group I'm part of, we created a little survey about how students use Google Docs.  One of our questions asked about how organized their Google Docs files are.  A large-ish percentage of students said that their files are not really organized at all, but only a very small percentage said they'd like help in developing an organizational system.

I have no idea what to make of that...but I know high-functioning adults at both ends of that spectrum!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Ramblings and Musings on Assessment

I need to get my head straight before I can post my own assessment process or add to the class Wiki on thoughts are ALL OVER THE MAP, so this is going to be a spot where I attempt to do a little thinking through writing.  That usually helps, and I'm going to trust in the magic of it here.

I just read all kinds of stuff--from the CCCC and NCTE, as well as that swell article by the middle school teachers about how they rethought assessment and ended up doing some cool collaborative work.  Then I looked at what my classmates have already posted on the topic. As I read, my thoughts flitted through roughly a zillion different topics, including, but not limited to:

  • Oh my god I am a terrible assessor of student work.
  • I like my rubrics.
  • I hate my rubrics.
  • I wish my school would have a common plan/strategy for writing assessment!
  • I am so glad my school doesn't have a common rubric for writing assessment (even though we have tried repeatedly to implement one).
  • I do not have anywhere near enough time to grade all of the papers I get.
  • I don't give my students enough feedback.
  • My students need to write more and in a wider variety of genres.
  • Are my assessments formative or summative?
  • How can I do more formative assessment and do it in an organized way?
  • How on earth can I find time to gather and interpret data from formative assessments in a timely and meaningful way?
  • How can I make all of this good stuff happen NOW (or starting next week) for my unit on Romeo and Juliet?
  • I really need to set clear learning goals/targets each day for my students, not just vaguely in my head and my planbook.
  • I am not a careful, effective, talented teacher.
  • I am being melodramatic.
  • When I tried to do some major interventions with specific students around writing recently, it seemed somewhat beneficial to them, but so incredibly time consuming to me that I could never sustain that kind of work.
  • I am not challenging my highest level thinkers/writers anywhere near enough.
  • Differentiation is hard.  Assessing it is even harder.
  • If I reward effort, what about the kid who tries hard but does not meet the standard?
  • How many students have I crushed with a series of low scores circled on a rubric--regardless of my attempt at supportive comments?
  • How do we get our students to care?  Shouldn't they be working at least as hard as I am?
  • I am a hot mess when it comes to assessing.  And here I thought I'd made a lot of progress.
  • Casco Bay High School's Habits of Work--I like this idea--I think.
Ok, so where to go now?  What to focus on?

What I do:
I try to use department rubrics when I can (mostly for freshmen);  I use AP rubrics for AP students.  I believe in the standards identified, but the subjectivity slays me every time.
What I want to do: Be more mindful of goal setting and assessing whether or not my students have met the goals.  I can (or should be able to) keep this simple at times.
What worries me: Finding the time.  I feel like I have too many students/too many responsibilities to really get to know my students as people and as writers (same thing?).

Am I ready to post?  Eh...yeah.  I think so!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Portfolio Piece...

So I've been working on my portfolio piece for a little while now, and I'm pretty excited about it.  I'm enjoying the process of remembering, note-taking, and photo-gathering.

My project is going to be a piece on Exposure, on a subject I've been ruminating on and meaning to write about for years now.

The trouble I'm finding is that I don't want to share it with anyone yet.  Not even parts of it.  My parents have the vaguest notion what I'm up to because I've had to ask them for some photos, but I have never explained even to them what I'm doing.

I haven't shown my drafts to my husband or my colleagues or any friends.  And I most definitely haven't posted anything about it on the Moodle site.

What's up with this?

It's making me think about my process for writing this sort of thing.  I find that the following are true:

  1. I like this sort of project (just as I loved creating my multigenre).
  2. I can't wait to share it...when it's ready.
  3. I don't want folks looking at it until I'm pretty close to done.
  4. When I'm pretty close to done, I may...may...reach out to someone for a bit of specific feedback.
  5. If I reach out to anyone, it's going to be a writerly friend or a family member.
  6. The thought of posting my "work-in-progress" to the forum is mortifying.
I am not sure why all of this is, especially as I understand and appreciate constructive feedback.  I guess I just want it on my terms.  Even with the multigenre assignment, I found it hard to share pieces of it early.  I managed, but it wasn't a terribly helpful experience and I did it to meet the assignment requirement.  I think these sort of projects through in broad strokes, gathering details, making lists, and not really drafting until somewhat late in the game.  After a flurry of intense writing activity, I'll tinker here and there, tweaking this and rewriting that, until I'm satisfied.

I think I'm going to stick with that for this project.  Because I'm finally getting to a topic I've been wanting to write about for some time, it feels really personal (though it isn't any sort of harrowing life story/memoir/drama).  It also feels important.  I'm looking forward to sharing it with the class and with my family...when I'm ready.

p.s.  I'll meet the deadline.  Deadines are no problem, but I won't be ready to share until then, I don't think.  Hope that's not a problem for the course!  If it is...well...I'll just go back to Wormser and Capella's creativity guideline #5: Don't worry about what should be because there is no should be!

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The Young Writer

My kiddo is 6 years old, almost 7, and she loves writing.

Maine Writing Project Pencil at work!  (Not even entirely staged for the photo!)

It's 5:41 AM and she is sitting next to me at the kitchen table working on page 3 of her latest story.  It's about three kittens, Toop, Loop, and Clumsy, who at the moment are living at a pet store.  They like it, but they also wish to get adopted by a pet owner.  They find the other animals in the store to be great friends and they like the vet, but it's sad when other pets leave the store.  Oh, and Clumsy is the smartest of the bunch (she's using irony.)  There is a lot of dialogue (with quotation marks), and a good sense of character.  She is writing on paper her teacher gave her ( a stack of loose-leaf) that she is keeping in a binder she got for Christmas.  In general, the kids are not supposed to bring miscellaneous stuff from home to school, but her teacher gave her (and her friend) the thumbs up to bring these binders because the two of them do tons of extra writing for fun at school.  Who could complain about that?

I could not be more proud.  What English-Teacher-Mama wouldn't be?  (What Mama in general wouldn't be?  It's my job to be proud of my gal.)

But this isn't just a brag post (I try not to do those too much).

We've been conversing a lot in ERL 590 about killing the fun that writing and reading can be, mostly by drowning our students in argument and informational writing assignments.  I think my daughter has enjoyed the different types of writing they've practiced at school (using the Lucy Caulkins Writing Workshop model).  She enjoys reading both fiction and non-fiction, and writing them as well.  Though I've noticed a decided switch to an interest in fiction in the last few months.  I wonder if stories are just starting to make more sense to her now.

Abby is careful about he writing and she wants her story to be just write.  She talks about sharing it with her teacher, and she frequently reads what she's written aloud to me.

I must say...Abby has started a zillion stories, and I'm not sure she's finished any of them.  But that's ok.  One day she'll get to "The End," and then most likely she'll start a new one.  I hope!

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

The intensity of a literature-filled life

A student brought in the following quote from Anias Nin's diaries as a prompt for our Creative Writing class:

“The other night we talked about literature's elimination of the unessential, so that we are given a concentrated "dose" of life. I said, almost indignantly, "That's the danger of it, it prepares you to live, but at the same time, it exposes you to disappointments because it gives a heightened concept of living, it leaves out the dull or stagnant moments. You, in your books, also have a heightened rhythm, and a sequence of events so packed with excitement that I expected all your life to be delirious, intoxicated."
Literature is an exaggeration, a dramatization, and those who are nourished on it (as I was) are in great danger of trying to approximate an impossible rhythm. Trying to live up to Dostoevskian scenes every day. And between writers there is a straining after extravagance. We incite each other to jazz-up our rhythm.”

--Anais Nin, The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 1: 1931-1934

I really enjoyed thinking about this quote. At first it brought to mind folks like the Fitzgeralds (I've read a love letter or two of theirs--some crazy passionate stuff!) and images from Midnight in Paris. It made sense to me that spending so much time thinking in fictional worlds, where the mundane is cut out, would make ordinary life seem pale and bland.

I then thought of the writing exercises and writing advice I've heard and given over the years. Cut out the "Hi," and "How are you?" part of a phone conversation and get to the meaty part! Skip the drive to the big game. Heck, skip the first three-quarters of it! Just give us those final, aching moments!

I think many writers agree that the regular stuff of our lives (folding laundry, wiping the counter, scooping the litter box) isn't the stuff of fiction. (Maybe because it is too real?) (Hi! Here's my novel about grocery shopping! Weeee!)

But then my thoughts shifted to the writers I know, and my favorite writer in particular seems decidedly in love with life, more or less just as it is. And I got to thinking about how a lot of the writing I like to read and attempt to create is in fact capturing the ordinary every day, and the challenge is doing it in a way that doesn't feel as emotionless as picking lint off a sweater.

So maybe for some writers life is too boring...and the prospect of living a string of ordinary days is terrifying, but I'm glad I'm not one of those.

I am happy to be in the camp that appreciates a slow pace and time to really look at everything around us, however uneventful life may be.

Oh, and I just had a slice of chocolate cake for breakfast. I may never see a bullfight or go on safari in Africa, but honestly, there is something exceedingly delightful in quiet time, tea, and chocolate cake at 6AM! I'm not sure I'd ever get bored of that.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Everything is a Prompt

One of the things I like to do with my students is teach them that EVERYTHING is a prompt.  We can look at whatever we are reading and from it draw writing ideas.

Here is an example of what I mean.  (My students will be sharing their own passages and prompts this week.)

Love letter from Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera

(Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was a painter. Her unique style can best be described as a cross between Mexican folk art and Surrealism. She married Diego Rivera in 1929. They separated ten years later, and then remarried in 1941.)

Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days. You are the mirror of the night. The violent flash of lightening. The dampness of the earth. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. My fingertips touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower-fountain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves which are yours.

Possible prompts:
  • Write a love letter--the crazier and more passionate, the better.
  • Write a string of metaphors for someone (pick someone you feel strongly about, though the emotion need not be passionate love)
This letter put me in mind of the Philip Philips song, “Gone, Gone, Gone,” and these lyrics particularly:

You're my back bone.
You're my cornerstone.
You're my crutch when my legs stop moving.
You're my head start.
You're my rugged heart.
You're the pulse that I've always needed.
Like a drum, baby, don't stop beating.
Like a drum, baby, don't stop beating.
Like a drum, baby, don't stop beating.

Like a drum my heart never stops beating...

Here are some excerpts from my wild and crazy (fictional!) love letter:

Being near you is clandestine.
Even though we are in a room with twenty other people,
My thoughts make it a secret assignation.

You slay me daily.

You are the forbidden fruit and I want you, seeds and all.

...and so on...  (Is it warm in here?)

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Writing for Kate

My dear friend Kate is retiring from her position as director of the Southern Maine Writing Project.  As part of a celebration for her years of making SMWP the awesome experience that it is, we've invited our teacher consultants to write a little something for her.

I have worked with Kate since the SMWP was born.  She has been a great friend and mentor (and will continue to be so, only with fewer report-writing and budgetary obligations).

So below is the mess that yielded the poem (I think) I am going to give her.  Might revise again before the party.

After writing the story of a student writer, I became a bit more vigilant about examining my own writing process.   In this case, I had a clear task, but no clear plan to complete it.  I knew I wanted to write something that was light-hearted but heart-felt.  I started by writing my goal, writing what I thought of first, and then I actually called on a writing prompt I use with my students!  And lo and behold, it worked.

Here's the entirety of my process...sort of.  You can't see the zillions of little revisions to the poem at the end, but there is an early draft and a later draft.  Neat, I think, to see the evolution of my thinking.  Maybe I'll annotate brackets.

* * * *

What Would Kate Do [I think this all the time, but I'm vaguely uneasy about the fact that it's sort of a Jesus reference, so I wasn't sure I wanted to include it.]

Kate--I wanted to write you a poem or a story.  [Kate taught me to address my characters in letters!]

[The following memory is my quintessential example of why I like to ask myself what Kate would do...but I'm pretty sure I've shared this story with her and others.  Still, I wanted to write it.]

Probably my strongest memory of working with you is from our very first day of our very first Summer Institute.  We got to Bailey Hall, and there were all kinds of people showing up at 301 who were not part of the SI.  I felt my heart rate increase.  Who were these people?  Why were they in OUR space?  What could we do?  I was girding my loins to do battle!

And then you came in, talked to one of the guys there, and said something like, “Hey!  Hi!  How are you?  What are you studying today?  Oh!  That sounds interesting!”  And you put everyone at ease, got to the bottom of the mix up, and ever so kindly sent the misplaced folks to their classroom down the hall.

Oh.  I thought, quietly sheathing my imaginary sword.  That works, too.

I learned a lot about writing from knowing and working with you, and I absolutely love saying to people, “Oh, my friend Kate, the writer...”  But probably I learned the most about how to be ok with people.  If anyone knows you catch more flies with honey, it’s you!

[The saying about catching flies with honey seems so apt for Kate, though I had not thought of it before.  That got me going on honey...]

All honey--
The best kind from local bees. [At this point I realized I had accidentally started an acrostic. I decided to see if I could do it.]
Ever sweet and salubrious too.

Keeper of the peace.
Exuding love and laughter
(No cliches, please)
Exuding words of wisdom
Yep.  My idol and mentor.

[I was having trouble with the poem--keeping it good and real and not too corny and cliched.  When my students are using too many vague statements and cliches to write about people, I give them a version of the following exercise.  I decided to try it for myself to come up with some concrete imagery.  I learned this technique in a poetry class in graduate school.  I think I wrote about it elsewhere in this blog already.]

If Kate were:
a tree: a birch tree or a beech tree? [Had to google image search to see which one I meant. Definitely Birch.]
a building: writing cabin [she has one of these, so it felt like a cop out, but I left it.]
a song: something with a beat
a dance move: jazz hands
an animal: blue bird [she loves blue birds. And horseshoe crabs.]
a food: honey
a season: spring
a color: blue or green
vehicle: bicycle
item of clothing: bright green pants
shoe: athletic sandal
book: short stories
sound: laugh

[And all of that...brought me to this:]

You are as fun as
a blue-green bicycle
or bright green pants.
Seeing you
is like seeing
blue birds
or jazz hands.
You are
A mug of hot tea,
pithy quote on the tag,
Beautiful birch trees
or spiraling sand castles--
You are as sweet as
honey, nevermind the bees
and as arresting as
Carnival music or
maybe coyotes.
I am grateful for frothy waves
and beaded bangles,
sea glass
and sandwich boards
with chalk sea horses
sketched on them.
And you.  
I am grateful for you.


You are as fun as
a blue-green bicycle
or bright green pants.
Seeing you
is like seeing
blue birds
or jazz hands.

You're like
A mug of hot tea,
pithy quote on the tag,
beautiful birch trees
or castles in sand.

You are as sweet
as honey, nevermind the bees,
and as arresting
as Carnival music
or maybe...coyotes.

I’m grateful for sea glass
and sandwich boards too.
And also,
by the by,
I am grateful
for you.

[I like this, though I don't like that some of it has a strong meter and some of it doesn't. I would prefer the whole thing to feel more like the first stanza...but it's hard to go back. If I revise further, I'll post the new version.]

Now that I am looking at all of this again, I think I might actually like the first version better...but maybe with the last four lines or so of the second version...

I need to sleep on it!

UPDATE: 3/30
I ended up combining the two drafts into this:

You are as fun
as a blue-green bicycle
or bright green pants.
Seeing you
is like seeing
blue birds
or jazz hands.
You are
A mug of hot tea,
pithy quote on the tag,
beautiful birch trees
or spiraling sand castles.
You are as sweet
as honey, nevermind the bees
and as arresting
as carnival music
or maybe...coyotes.
I am grateful
for fountain pens
and beaded bangles,
sea glass
and sandwich boards
with chalk sandwiches
sketched on them.
And also,
by the by,
I am grateful
for you.